The Existential Work of the Jedi

In a Bulletin post from August 2011, I speculated about the likely religious future of George Lucas’ still wildly popular, and globally distributed, Star Wars universe. Might figures such as the Jedi Knight come to play an increasingly explicit role in popular religious imaginations, practices, and institutions?

Typically, scholars of new religious movements assess such queries by looking to large sociological surveys for the number and percentage of citizens who self-identify as adherents of specific religious institutions, in this case “Jediism.” This approach certainly has its merits, as it allows us to quickly identify explicit shifts in religious self-identification, such as the 2011 Czech Republic census which noted that more than 15,000 citizens chose “Jedi Knights” as their religious preference, and those from a decade earlier suggesting similarly impressive numbers in Australia (70,000), Great Britain (390,000), and elsewhere.

Of course, interpreting these numbers is another matter altogether. In nations of many millions of people, they represent very small percentages indeed, typically less than 1%. Moreover, it is not certain what percentage of Jedi intend their adherence ironically or as a mode of resistance to being asked such questions to begin with, as opposed to more traditionally religious motives. That said, the assumption that religious identity necessarily requires a strong cognitive component such as sincere belief or devout practice is at odds with the reasons that many (though surely not all) people see themselves as religious (e.g., because they were raised in a given tradition, because they want to provide an ethical foundation for their children, because of the social contact religious communities tend to offer, because they represent a potentially interesting diversion, etc.).

Alongside religious self-identification, we might also look at the existential and cultural work being performed by the resources under consideration. For Lucas’ Star Wars imaginary has become entangled in all sorts of entertaining, economically profitable, and just plain interesting, forms of cultural production, including (but by no means limited to): online videos gone viral (e.g., Jedi Kittens, Jedi Squirrels, and a day in the life of a lazy Jedi), television commercials, online gaming communities, martial arts, fast food, and even a science-fiction-themed brothel. More, it has inspired popular artwork of so-called “Jedi saints,” childhood education prorgams, an imaginative setting for a recent Jedi & Sith marriage (see picture above), and Christmas nativity scenes featuring “the chosen one, Luke Skywalker.”

The data created by this line of investigation, like that of large scale studies, is by no means unambiguous. Are these, alongside the new Jedi churches that are thriving online, signs that Jediisms are primed to flourish within the religious mainstream in America and elsewhere? Many will no doubt respond that such a suggestion is itself worthy of science fiction, since the Star Wars universe is, at the end of the day, purely a work of the human imagination. The same of course could be said of any religious world we might inhabit, though we typically advance such claims about the religious worlds of other folks‘. More, many of those inspired by Star Wars themes perceive them as especially well suited to challenges within their actual, lived social worlds. As one Jedi martial arts instructor explains, “What we’re attempting to do is focusing on elements that have to do with really important components in life,” for instance, teaching children self-defense, but also how to remain calm and at peace under difficult circumstances.









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